Posts Tagged Robert McKee

Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

bookshelvesDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?

If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.

Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.

Today: dialogue

Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.

On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.

They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.

If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:

Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.

Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.

Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.

Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?


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4 low-cost ways to get writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor


I’ve just finished writing my first novel. I want to get published but I can’t pay for an editor. What can I do? Edith

Every week I get emails from writers who want help but can’t afford the cost of an editor. And I can see why. Good editors cost a big chunk of money and the job can’t be done cheaply. I don’t think seriously committed writers assume anything otherwise.

But sometimes, the writing world can seem like those schools where rich parents hothouse their kids by hiring personal tutors. If you don’t have the spare dollars, will you be left behind?

Not necessarily. Many of the writers I know never hired editors, yet we earned our spurs somehow. And you can still learn the way we did. It still works.

I probably sound like I’m doing myself out of a job here. Certainly a good editor will zoom in on your individual weaknesses (and strengths), and will improve all the novels you write, not just the one they assess. Also I’ll state that I’ve learned heaps from the agents and editors I’ve worked with. But the bulk of my learning came from elsewhere.

It wasn’t all free, but it was considerably cheaper than hiring an editor.

1 Find a good evening class

For two years I went to a novel-writing course at an adult education college. This was fantastic – an intensive two hours each week in which we’d critique a couple of works in progress, guided by a tutor who was also a literary agent. In case you’re in London, it was Morley College in Waterloo. Almost any well-populated area should have adult education facilities, and you can probably access them online too.

Intensive weekend courses are also useful (in the UK Arvon is well regarded), though the cost is getting on for the price of an editor, but there’s definitely something to be said for a regular dose of writing tuition every week to realign your awareness. Writing minds are trained gradually, so hothousing doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage.

Cost: Evening classes at Morley College about £130 per term

2 Find a critique group

Your evening class might fulfil this function, as mine did. But if it doesn’t, find a critique group or a clan of beta readers you can trust with your WIP. They may not be as expert as tutor-level critics, but can still be very valuable as they will react to your work as real readers.

Make sure you pick people who read your type of book (I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ after last week’s discussion 🙂 ) and who come together with the intent to help each other improve. You don’t want a mutual stroking society, you want people who’ll stop you making mistakes.

How expert do they have to be? Almost anybody can tell you the places where the book bored them, interested them, confused them, stretched their credibility or kept them up well past their bedtime. If they give you solutions as well, ignore them (diplomatically) unless they have reason to know what they’re doing. You find your solutions from your other experts.

A word of caution: although the participants don’t have to be expert, you need to make sure the group is moderated by someone witcakeh nous who can recognise when personality clashes or personal issues are interfering with the group’s criticism.

If you can’t find a group in the corporeal world, there’s nothing to stop you assembling a brief email list of trusted early readers.

Cost: Wine, cake and other standard bribes

3 Read craft books

For years I mainlined writing craft books. I gobbled up so many I can’t remember all the titles, and I gave loads away to friends, but the ones I still have are by Robert McKee, Jordan Rosenfeld, Stephen King, Dianne Doubtfire , James Wood, David Lodge, Bob Shaw, Syd Field and Blake Snyder.

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compAnd of course, I’m now adding to the writers’ reading burden with tomes of my own, distilled into practical tutorials based on the advice I regularly give when I critique. Hence the characters book.

Cost: the price of a book (or several)

4 Read like a writer

This is what I have always done. Each time I read something that impresses me, I stop and examine how it was done. This means I dither through books, often trapped by a sentence, a description or a wrenching twist. This extreme predisposition to wonder is what made me write in the first place and it’s what inspires and teaches me still.

Cost: what price can you put on pleasure?

The long and the short

It can’t be denied that an editor is a fast track to proficiency. But some of the necessary lessons can’t be learned in a hurry. We need time for unfamiliar concepts to become habit, to make the knowledge our own and to put it to full imaginative use. That isn’t bought with money. It’s earned with time and dedication.

Thanks for the money-burning pic Jurvetson Just for the record, the lady in the pic is not a financially challenged – or blessed – writer, but an entrepreneur making a point about energy wastage. But we’re both talking about money that may not need to be spent 🙂

Where are you in your writing journey? How did you learn and how are you learning still? Is there anything you’d tell Edith?

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Story structure: why plot milestones might not be equally spaced – and why that’s good

Darmstaedter-Madonna-golden-ratioI’ve had a question from Jennifer Ibarra.

How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?

The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…

What are we talking about?

Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).

Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.

Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)

How exact do these act points have to be?

If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.

But novels…

Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:

Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around

They do indeed. And that’s good.

Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.

Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.

Equal but not equal

Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.

I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)

Act 1 contains set-up, whicterreh has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)

In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.

In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.

Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.

Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.

Novels aren’t movies

Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.

So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!

Thanks for the golden ratio pic Snotty on Wikimedia Commons

What would you say to Jen?


ebookcovernyn3Update December 2014: if you liked this discussion, you’ll find loads more in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel – which is launching right now! Special pre-release price if you reserve a copy before 5 January.


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